Labor and Health Care Issues

A primer on the dangers of 'shared governance'

02.15.2005

From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
January/February 2005 Edition

By Roland Goff
Director, MNA Labor Program

As a labor union as well as a professional association, the MNA advocates improved terms and conditions of work, and advocates for improved patient care not only because it is right to do so, but because these issues are inseparable.

As a union, members have a legally protected right to discuss and negotiate any proposed changes in work terms and conditions—either through the negotiation of a new contract or through regularly scheduled labor-management meetings, where the union and administration sit as equal partners. In contract negotiations and in the labor management process, you have the right to say "no," or at least to engage in good faith negotiation to a reasonable agreement.

Shared governance/practice councils and similar bodies are strategies employed by health care administrators as a means of undermining the rights of union members to negotiate over terms and conditions of employment that effect nurses and patients.

Employers create these bodies either as an employer-dominated labor organization or to remove issues from the negotiations or labor/management meetings to a forum in which they dominate the decision making process—an employer-dominated labor organization in disguise. Merely having the opportunity to "have input" or to "make suggestions" or to "share your ideas and opinions" is not real "shared governance." In these settings, if you make a suggestion and management doesn't like it, what recourse do you have? The answer is you have none.

For nurses in unionized settings, it is time that we re-establish our right to have all issues related to working conditions—including improved patient care—brought to the union contract negotiations or labor/management meetings where you have a real voice and, more importantly, the legally protected right to challenge management and to negotiate your position.

At the beginning of the 20th century the biggest threat to employee-led labor unions was the company-dominated labor organization, and it may be re-appearing at the beginning of the 21st century. The Wagner Act granted employees the right to organize into unions that would bargain collectively over terms and conditions of work. The union provided employees the right to organize themselves to bargain collectively with the employer over terms and conditions of employment. Unions empowered employees to address their working conditions and be advocates for better social-welfare programs.

Shared governance/practice councils, in its many forms, claims to enhance accountability, empower nurses and provide for patient advocacy. Merely listing the characteristics of shared governance/practice councils indicates that employers instituting these bodies are seeking to create a mutant unionism that destroys employee-led labor organizations.

An employer engages in an unfair labor practice pursuant to Section 8(a) (2) when it dominates a labor organization of its employees. How do you determine when shared governance/practice councils stop becoming a method to communicate with employees and starts an unfair labor practice? The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that an employer dominates when "the impetus behind formation of an organization of employees emanates from the employer and the organization has no effective existence independent of the employer's active involvement, a finding of domination is appropriate if the purpose of the organization is to deal with the employer concerning conditions of employment." (Electromation, Inc., and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local No. 1049).

This definition, applying to unionized and non-union facilities, covers many issues addressed in shared governance/ practice council bodies (e.g. new technology, scheduling, job descriptions, required duties), and we must review each issue to determine if the shared governance/practice council body is infringing on the legal territory established for the union in federal labor law. Employers retain the right to communicate with their employees and seek their opinion, but it cannot replace negotiations and labor/management meetings with shared governance/practice councils when the issues involve terms and conditions of employment.

Combating employer domination

Depending on your situation, there are several ways to combat attempts of employer domination. If you work in a facility that does not have any type of shared governance/ practice councils, then you should block attempts by the employer to create any such body. First, educate your fellow bargaining unit members about the principle that their union is their voice on all matters that affect their work including issues traditionally identified as professional—your ability to care for patients is a condition of employment. Second, inform your employer that you view any attempt to circumvent negotiations or labor/management as an unfair labor practice and assure the employer all the issues may be raised at negotiations or labor/management meetings.

If you work in a facility that has some type of shared governance/practice council, then in addition to educating your fellow bargaining unit members and informing the employer that raising issues about working conditions is illegal, you must monitor the shared governance/practice council discussions. You must infiltrate the committee, voice concerns about issues that you believe must be taken to the union or at least keep (or receive) minutes of the meetings. The recorded minutes and documents creating the body are the essential evidence in establishing an unfair labor practice of creating an employer dominated labor organization.

FPO